Part 1

She's spending the weekend with him. How could I say no? How could I possibly tell her that I mind? Fifteen-year-old Ruth Helen Kettner sat in her room, leaning against the twin bed. The navy blue curtains hanging limply in the window were a little tattered, and the forest green spread had a few holes in it. She had once shared this room with her older sister, but, since Leslie had moved out three years before, Ruthie was fortunate enough to have her own room. Even so, Leslie and Ruthie still spent every other Sunday afternoon together. Until Randall Farmer, that is.

Ruthie stared at the words on page ninety-seven of her biology textbook again. They didn't make any more sense to her now than they had about an hour ago, when she first started reading. She closed her eyes for a brief moment. Trying once again to concentrate on her homework instead of thinking about Leslie, her fingers found the huge gash in the spread that was held together by a safety pin. She unhooked the pin and hooked it again, not thinking about much of anything as she continued to stare at the page. She heard her brother, Matt, go into his room, and, a few minutes later, she heard him running down the hall. With a quick "see you later!", the front door slammed shut. She supposed Matt was going over to a friend's house or to the park or something. Matt's father, Arnold Kettner, yelled back, "Be home by dinner!", a little too late for Matt to even hear. Arnold Kettner was her stepfather, or adopted father, or something like that. She, Leslie, and Matt all had different fathers, but Marion Irene Rodgers Kettner was their mother.

Ruthie gave up trying to understand eukaryotic cells and endoplasmic reticulums, and thought instead about her mother and her life in general as her fingers continued to play with the safety pin. She wondered how her mother had managed to have three children with three different men. Somehow, that didn't seem normal to her. At least Matt had a father. Arnold wasn't the best father, but he came home most nights, and he more often managed to find a job than not. And he stuck around when the other two guys had both left. No, she thought the other guys had left her mother. She recently learned that Randall Farmer hadn't even known Marion was pregnant when Marion dumped him. My mother dumped him, she thought. Why? In spite of the fact that nobody seemed to like him as a teacher, he seemed to be a nice enough person. He hadn't hit her, he wasn't an alcoholic, and he didn't cheat on her. At least, not according to her mother. She said she just didn't love him and couldn't stand the idea of having to marry him. But she went ahead and had his baby. She couldn't bring herself to have an abortion. Ruthie guessed that was a good thing. After all, she loved her big sister. Half-sister. Adopted sister. Whatever, Ruthie thought. And she's hanging out with her father right now.

But who is my father, and where is he? Ruthie asked herself. Matt and Leslie both have fathers. I still have no one. She knew her father's name at least. Jed Marshall had come barreling into Marion's life soon after Leslie's seventh birthday. Next thing she knew, Marion Rodgers was pregnant again, and little Ruth Helen Rodgers-Marshall was born. Before little Ruthie had even turned two, he had moved on, looking for someone younger, someone who wasn't tied down by two children. Marion started drinking heavily, and then Arnold Kettner found her. Ruthie and Leslie became not only his stepchildren, but he actually adopted them, and they all had the last name Kettner now. On the outside, one might even think they were a normal family. Marion cleaned houses for a living, and Arnold worked in construction, when either of them was working at all. They actually made enough money to pay the rent and keep food on the table most months, but anything extra was out of the question.

Ruthie wondered what life would have been like had Marion married Randall Farmer all those years ago. Maybe she wouldn't even exist. After all, Mr. Farmer wasn't her father. She allowed herself to pretend, a fantasy playing out in her mind of a home like some of her fellow students must have. She thought about the Beldens. A mother and a father who loved each other, siblings who were actually fully related ... was that too much to ask? Was it that important? Maybe not, but a mother who didn't drink herself into a stupor every other night would have been nice. And maybe Randall Farmer could have stopped that. Maybe Randall Farmer could have stopped -- she quickly repressed the thought, causing her mind to come rushing back into the real world. An overwhelming feeling of loneliness suffocated her. She forced herself to breathe, trying to squelch the panic that was coming. A tear splashed down Ruthie's cheek and fell onto her arm. She winced. Why does that feel funny? she thought, and as she looked down at her arm, she saw a thin red line where she had scratched her wrist with the safety pin. The cut wasn't deep, Ruthie noticed. She dug the safety pin deeper into her skin and pulled it across the cut again, making it actually bleed this time. The physical pain of the cut caused her to momentarily forget the panic and the emptiness that had been engulfing her.

"Hey, Ruthie!" she heard her mother holler from the kitchen. "You gonna come in here and help with dinner or what?!"

Ruthie sighed and closed the biology book. After wiping the safety pin with a tissue, she carefully hooked it back into the threadbare bed spread. "Coming, Mom!" she yelled back. Pulling her thick, dark sweater down over her arm so that the cut wouldn't show, she made her way down the hall to the kitchen.



It was a couple of days later at school that Dan stopped her in the hall between classes. "Ruthie, there's a dance coming up in a couple of weeks."

"I know. I've seen the flyers." Why do I always sound so cold, she thought, as she resumed walking to her class.

"So, will you go with me?" he asked, walking in stride with her, even though she knew his next class was in the other direction.

That panicky feeling overcame her again, but, outward, she remained calm. "I don't know. Let me think about it."

Dan wondered about Ruthie. He was never sure just where he stood with her. Sometimes he was sure she liked him the same way he liked her. Other times, like now, he thought maybe she was just using him. He hated to sound arrogant, even to himself, but he knew he could go out with almost any girl at school. Maybe she didn't really like him. Maybe she just liked the attention she received when people saw them together. Dan shook his head. Ruthie wasn't like that. That was part of why he liked her so much. No, there must be something else. He remembered the first dance he'd taken her to last year. She'd gotten mad at him then for trying to move too fast. Maybe she was mad at him for something else. "Is something wrong?" he asked. "Did I do something to offend you?"

"N - no," she stammered. "I just don't know if I can even go to the dance at all." She walked through a doorway into a classroom, leaving Dan standing there, a bewildered expression etched across his face. She forced herself not to glance back at him. After putting her books on her desk, she absentmindedly slipped her hand under the sleeve of her sweater and rubbed the small welt on her arm.

 

Later, at lunch, Ruthie stared enviously at the Bob-Whites. She was sitting at her normal table with the other members of the Third-Hand Gang. Marvin and Shrimpy were laughing at some off-color joke Lester had just told. Even though she was a part of this group, she was still an outsider. She was the only female, and they often seemed to forget that, treating her as if she were one of the guys. The joke Lester had told was a typical example of this. Ruthie dumped her uneaten lunch in the garbage and walked out of the crowded cafeteria. Sitting down at one of the tables outside, she opened a book and pretended to read. She wondered why, if Dan liked her as much as everyone seemed to think he did, he didn't invite her to join him for lunch more often. Invisible. I wish I really were invisible. Everyone seems to think I am anyway. Unconsciously, she rubbed the cut on her wrist again.

"Hi! Can I keep you company?" Dan asked.

Ruthie nearly jumped out of her skin. She had been lost in her thoughts again and hadn't heard him come up. "I guess so," she finally answered.

"I didn't mean to startle you. Next time I'll start whistling or something before I get too close." Dan grinned at her.

"It wouldn't help," Ruthie replied quietly.

"What's wrong?" Dan wasn't one to beat around the bush.

"Nothing." Ruthie shook her head vehemently, trying to look convincing.

Dan wasn't convinced, but he let it drop. He sat down next to her. "The Waves," he read the title of her book. "Is it any good?"

Ruth smiled. "Honestly, I have no idea. I just started reading it."

"Ruthie, about that dance, I kind of sprung that invitation on you earlier." He paused. "Have you thought about it at all? I'd really like to go with you."

"I told you already; I don't know if I can go. Can I let you know later in the week?" Ruthie frowned as she spoke.

"Yeah, no problem."

The bell rang, signaling the end of lunch. Dan picked up Ruthie's book and walked with her to her locker.



"Leslie, I just didn't know what to tell him," Ruthie whined. She hated it when she whined. She'd have to watch that. Ruthie twirled and untwirled the phone cord around her wrist as she paced back and forth in the small kitchen. "I really do want to go, but I don't have anything to wear, and I can't afford a new dress. I'll feel like a fool if I keep wearing the same dress over and over to every dance."

"He wouldn't care if you wore patched up jeans and a sweat shirt," Leslie admonished her.

"No, he wouldn't, and you wouldn't. But I really can't handle the whole school laughing at me." Ruthie sat down, feeling completely dejected.

"Okay, I'll come over this weekend with some of my clothes, and we'll see if we can manage something."

"Thank you, Leslie. You're an angel." Ruthie's voice was soft as she tried to hold back more tears.

"Not an angel, just your sister. And that's what sisters do. Now call Dan and tell him you'll go."

 

Friday after school, Ruthie rushed home, hoping her sister would already be there. She wasn't. Ruthie ran to her room and slammed the door shut. When she'd gone through the living room, it looked like her mother was well on her way to la-la land.

It was a few hours later that Leslie, having let herself into her former home, knocked on Ruthie's door and entered. She didn't notice Ruthie quickly hiding something under the bed and tugging down her sleeve. The two girls greeted each other warmly and then got to the reason for the visit. Leslie dumped a bag of clothes on the bed, and she and Ruthie looked through the selection for something suitable.

"Oh, this is nice," Ruthie said as she held up a light blue dress. "Does it have a jacket that goes with it?"

"No," Leslie answered her. "But the three-quarter sleeves should be long enough for inside. Just wear your coat over it."

"I was just remembering that the gym is always air conditioned." Ruthie shrugged her shoulders. She continued to look through the clothes her sister had brought over. She found another dress, a sleeveless forest green with cream colored roses printed on the fabric. "Maybe this one here with my cream cardigan?"

"That should work. Why don't you try it on?" Leslie waited while Ruth went to the bathroom to change. Something nagged at the back of her mind, but she couldn't figure out exactly what. There was something different about Ruthie, that little she knew. Maybe it has to do with Mr. Far - I mean Father, Leslie thought to herself. Even though Randall Farmer would never really be a father to her, she did try to remember to call him Father out of respect. She found herself liking the grumpy old man, as long he remembered that she was an adult, and it was much too late to play Daddy to her. Since Mr. Farmer and Leslie had been reunited, she had met with him a couple of times, even missing her normal Sunday afternoon get-together with Ruthie. She hoped Ruthie wasn't upset about it, but lately, she found it hard to tell just what her little sister was thinking. As Ruthie came back into the room, twirling the skirt of the mid-calf length dress, Leslie suddenly realized what was odd. "You didn't need to leave to go change, you know," she teased Ruthie lightly. "We shared this room for so long; I've seen you naked before."

Ruthie looked like a deer caught in headlights. Then she recovered a little. "But that was before, well, before you moved out, before I started, you know, growing," Ruthie mumbled, hoping the lame excuse would suffice.

Apparently, Leslie bought it. She laughed that little tinkly laugh of hers. "Silly girl. You're still my sister. But I don't want to embarrass you, so do whatever makes you comfortable." She got up and looked admiringly at the dress. The style was one of those that was loose fitting and then tied in the back with a clip. Leslie adjusted the clip for Ruthie so that it brought out her curves. "That sweater really is the same color as those roses. So, when is this dance?"

"Next weekend." Ruthie answered. "Leslie, can I ask one more favor?"

"Of course you can. Just name it."

"Do you have some eye shadow I can borrow?" Ruthie asked excitedly.

"Now, how did I know you were going to ask about make-up?" Leslie grinned as she dug a cosmetic bag out of another bag she had brought with her. The two young women sat on Ruthie's bed and sorted through lipsticks, blushes, mascara, eye liners, and, of course, eye shadows. They played at making each other up, much as they had when Leslie was the fifteen-year-old and Ruthie was only seven, only this time Ruthie managed not to make Leslie look like a clown.



One week later, Dan had his arm around Ruthie as they walked into the school gym. "You look really gorgeous. I'm glad you did decided to come to the dance with me." Dan smiled warmly at his date.

Ruthie smiled back at him. "I'm glad I came, too."

Dan led Ruthie to one of the round tables set around the edge of the dance floor. The other couples were already there: Mart and Di sitting so close, Di may as well have been on his lap; Nick and Honey sitting much further apart and looking just a little uncomfortable; and Jason and Trixie sitting next to each other, though Trixie was actually talking to Honey. Dan held out a chair for Ruthie, and the others all welcomed her enthusiastically. Di even reached over and squeezed her hand. Ruthie sat quietly, listening to the others chitchat amongst themselves. It wasn't long before Jason asked Trixie to dance, and Dan followed his lead. The song had changed to a slower one, and he didn't want to pass up a chance to hold Ruthie close.

"Don't you want to take your sweater off?" Dan whispered.

"No, it's kind of cold in here," Ruthie answered.

Dan didn't think it was cold at all, but then he was rarely cold. Shrugging it off, he put his arms around her, and they swayed gently to the music.

 

Later that evening, after another dance, Dan noticed Ruthie was sweating and looked rather flushed. Dan led her back to the table. "Are you sure you don't want to step outside?" Dan asked.

"No, I'm okay," Ruthie insisted. "Let's just sit for a few minutes."

"At least take your sweater off. You're sweating."

"I'm fine," she mumbled.

"Maybe you have a fever?" Dan placed the back of his hand against her forehead. She felt normal. "Do you want me to take you home?" he asked, crossing his fingers, hoping the answer was no.

"No, I'll just go and freshen up a bit. I'll be fine." She tried to smile reassuringly at him.

Ruthie walked away from the table and slipped into the bathroom. Wetting a few paper towels down, she locked herself into an empty stall. Luckily, the other girls in the ladies' room hadn't paid any attention to her. Of course, they never really did. Inside the stall, she took off her sweater and wiped herself down. She was sweating way too much, but she didn't see any choice. There was no way she was going to let Dan, or anyone, see the cuts on her arm. She opened her purse and pulled out some body spray. She freshened up as best she could and put the sweater back on.

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